Today we visited Machu Picchu. High-stakes emotional poker… this was one of those experiences that could totally fall short of expectations (see Zermatt). After all, everyone is familiar with the emblematic photographs of Machu Picchu: how could the real thing possibly live up to those hopelessly exotic images?
Well, it did.
Our photos aren’t as hauntingly evocative – no clouds clinging to the ridgetop, and we mostly saw the site in the harsh light of midday. There were a lot of people there, too, no question about it. But despite those things, seeing Machu Picchu was an astounding experience. It met expectations, and what’s more, it revealed all sorts of fascinating aspects we’d never even considered.
While we grumbled at the midnight freight switching that echoed in our room last night, we appreciated the proximity of our hotel this morning. We were able to gulp some coffee at 4:45 and still be on the platform in plenty of time for the train’s scheduled 5:07 AM departure. We were there, but the train wasn’t. It finally showed up and we departed around 6:15. An inauspicious start, because we’d hoped to get to the ruins near sunrise.
There was a silver lining, however: as the sky brightened, we were able to see more of the river valley through which we traveled. Occasionally we caught glimpses high, high up the side of the gorge to snowy peaks and glaciers. More often our views were of a valley of varying width, speckled with farms and pasture land, and occasionally punctuated with the unmistakable precision of Inca stone work. The sides of the valley were invariably steep, ascending thousands of feet to the often hidden snow peaks above.
Near the end of our journey, the vegetation was almost tropical in its luxuriance. Parasitic plants grew on the branches of trees, sprouting crimson flowers. Lacy vines, almost fern-like, grew rampant over rocks and trees, lending a fuzzy haze to the landscape. When the train pulled into Aguas Calientes, we stepped out into warm, jungle-y air. No time to linger, however, and we quickly made our way to our next mode of transport: buses, which ply the steep road that lifts visitors from Aguas Calientes through a series of ten switchbacks to the very top of the ridge upon which Machu Picchu sits.
In any other situation, the views from the bus ride would be the attraction itself. When we crossed the Urubamba River and passed into the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, we immediately began climbing up the side of one of the many impossibly steep landforms that crowd this area. With each successive switchback, our view became more expansive: we gazed directly across the river valley at near-vertical mountainsides, and frequently got glimpses almost straight back down to where we’d started. Additionally, as we gained height, we saw more and more of the surrounding mountain range, up to glaciated peaks in several directions.
We finally reached the top of the ridge. The bus stopped, we piled out and hustled past the attractive hotel and commercial complex that forms the entrance to the ruins. We handed our tickets to the attendant and passed into… wonderland.
We had no idea that the scenery surrounding Machu Picchu was so spectacular. Our trains, planes, and automobiles (well, buses) journey took us through an ever-more-spectacular landscape, culminating in the ruins themselves.
While it deserves its reputation as a mysterious and sacred place, to the visitor Machu Picchu also evokes a different sort of emotion. Tiptoeing next to vertigo-inducing drops of thousands of feet, surrounded by peaks, bathed in mountain sunshine, we felt like kids in a tree house or hidden fort. No question: in the right light, Machu Picchu can appear other worldly, ethereal, profound. But in the bright light of midday, it’s a mountain top hideout, an awesome, fantastic aerie above it all. It’s a whole lot of fun.
American national parks, or public spaces in general, rise to a certain level of safety and ADA compliance. You won’t find any wheelchair ramps at Machu Picchu. Hell, you won’t find handrails, warning signs, or safety barriers here either. With the exception of a few inobtrusive directional signs, the site appears untouched by modern interference. The distance from the bottom to the top of the site isn’t more than a few hundred feet, but a few things conspire to make it a little more challenging to navigate than it looks in pictures. First and foremost, it’s a maze. There are all sorts of wacky dead ends. More importantly, the stone paths and stairs are uneven, and require a little more caution than your typical trail back home. We saw some brazen young men bolt down in flip flops, but for mere mortals, comfortable hiking boots are a better idea. Then there’s the altitude. At 9000 feet in the tropics, the sunlight is very intense, and unless you’re well acclimatized, you’ll tire and burn more quickly than you would at sea level.
Every view from every angle at Machu Picchu is wow-worthy, but moments after you reach the Watchman’s Hut at the top and start your descent, there it is— The View. It’s the archetypal image of the entire complex anchored by the peak of Huainu Pichhu as a backdrop. It’s the spot where the view of Machu Picchu you’ve held in your mind slides into place and matches up perfectly with the view in front of you.
As the hours wore on, the number of visitors clambering over the ruins increased dramatically. By 12:30, we’d had enough. We made our way back to the entrance and gulped down water and beer and ate the sandwiches we’d gotten at the hotel. We watched as more and more tourists poured through the entrance gates to the ruins. We weighed our options and decided to quit while we were ahead. We hopped on the next bus back down to Aguas Calientes, and on the way down the hill we passed eleven buses full of more visitors on their way up.
Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site at risk, and may soon be officially categorized as “in danger.” The glut of tourism has brought some wealth into an area that desperately needs it, but if Peru doesn’t find a way to balance the flow of cash with the strain that so many visitors place on the park, the gravy train won’t last long. Twenty years ago, the only visitors to Machu Picchu were those who made the four day trek from Cusco. Today in high season, 5000 people visit the site every day. It's convenient, to be sure, and allows a much wider audience to see this amazing place, but - like many similar sites worldwide - it's being loved to death.
We took the cheaper backpacker train in the morning just to get to Machu Picchu earlier, but we were looking forward to the return trip on the glass-topped “Vistadome” train. After we’d walked through the entire town of Aguas Calientes, and its endless market of souvenirs, we were both ready for a shower and a nap. We decided to see if there was an earlier train to Ollantaytambo, but we learned instead that our train was delayed two hours, and the only earlier option was to get on the backpacker train with no refund for the difference. PeruRail is not a well-oiled machine like Eurail. It gets you where you want to go… eventually. We had no confidence that our already-delayed train would get us back to Ollanta before 10PM, and really, what’s the point of a panoramic view in the dark? We cut our losses and downgraded to the backpacker train. And of course, it was late too.
Back at the hotel, we settled into El Albergue’s diningroom for an early dinner of traditional goodies—First, Incan french fries: fried yucca served with huancaina, a deliriously delicious Andean sauce of queso fresco, garlic, and aji amarillo chile. Then, Incan filet mignon: alpaca tenderloin in elderberry sauce. It was a delicious meal in a lovely setting, and the perfect prelude to what we needed most…
Twelve hours of sleep.